This section of West 27th Street doesn’t read like the greater part of Chelsea’s famed gallery district. One block east and for the next few south, the cross streets between 10th and 11th Avenue are a place of pilgrimage for the art world, galleries of the ilk of Gagosian, Barbara Gladstone, David Zwirner, Matthew Marks, Andrea Rosen and Luhring Augustine claiming vast, lofty spaces amid what has become one of Manhattan’s most iconic and thoroughly gentrified neighbourhoods.
Wandering the short, cobblestoned stretch of West 27th between 11th and the Hudson River discloses a completely different side of the Chelsea scene. The roar of delivery trucks heaving past fills the thick, early October air, while forklifts buzz in and out of towering, still functioning warehouses. It’s a working block – a nook that carries at least a trace of a gritty, much less glamorous city’s past – rusted fire escapes climbing the decaying, unadorned brick buildings that span the northern side of the street.
The idea is not lost on John Thomson, as he leans on a railing at the foot of Foxy Production’s unassuming façade. The small gallery, which Thomson founded with his life and business partner Michael Gillespie in 2000, has never taken a conventional route.
“We didn’t really know the commercial art market at all when we started, but in a way that lack of knowledge ended up being a really positive thing,” he says, smiling to himself for a moment. “We had experience in a curatorial context and we just showed work that we liked. That may not have been the most commercially minded way of running a gallery, but it built up good will with curators and collectors, and fairs suddenly wanted us to be part of them.”
Indeed, Foxy Production – which, before becoming a gallery, was a front for Gillespie and Thomson’s work as video art curators in London during the late 1990s – has built a reputation for operating on the commercial art world’s more experimental perimeters, working nimbly on a much smaller budget than the vast majority of New York’s hulking commercial institutions (outside of Thomson and Gillespie, the gallery has just one employee in associate director Ebony Haynes).
“Fifty, 60 or 70 per cent of people who own a commercial gallery used to work in a bigger commercial gallery,” says Thomson, who left Melbourne for London in 1990, first studying underground cinema at The University of Warwick before eventually taking a curatorial role at then film and video art institution The Lux Centre. “But we really didn’t know what we were doing in that sense and we just were buoyed by getting a lot of positive feedback, not just from critics but other people…collectors.”
The gallery’s original incarnation took the form of a small shopfront in a then largely ungentrified Williamsburg in 2000. With Thomson working at video archive Electronic Arts Intermix to help pay the bills, the space soon garnered a reputation for its project-based shows. “We just got so much encouragement from people,” recalls Thomson. “Everyone on the street was great. The New York Times may not have come and reviewed our first shows, but people would actually make the effort and come to see what we were doing.”
By 2003, Gillespie was working in the space fulltime, but when the pair’s landlords clued onto the gallery’s growing popularity, they “saw dollar signs” and doubled the rent. It was a blessing in disguise. Within a few months, Gillespie and Thomson had negotiated a group lease arrangement with handful of other small galleries to take over what was then a wholesale warehouse for African artifacts in their current West 27th Street building. “These guys had created a mosque from textiles in what became the front section of the gallery,” smiles Thomson. “So it looked a little a different to what it does now.”
A new series of typically lo-fi video works from Brooklyn artist Michael Bell-Smith is showing when we visit, his gaudy arrangements of file footage and early computer-generated graphics filling Foxy’s compact pair of spaces with flashes of flickering light and colour. Bell-Smith’s work is somewhat indicative of Foxy’s wider stable, which includes the likes of Australians David Noonan and 2011 Venice Biennale representative Hany Armanious alongside the soft-sculptural practice of Sterling Ruby and wildly hybridised paintings of Peter Williams, not to mention Spanish artist Ester Partegas and the poetic photographic explorations Simone Gilges and Moscow artist Olga Chernycheva.
If there’s a binding characteristic among Foxy’s artists, it’s an overriding sense of criticality and awareness, or as Thomson simply puts it, “content”. It’s a quality that has seen the gallery – which has also shown the work of Corey Archangel, A Constructed World and the legendary Nam June Paik – thrive amid what is perhaps the most world’s most competitive gallery scene, occupying a position that straddles an experimental engagement and a keen, if unconventional, commercial eye.
But Thomson is realistic about the gallery’s place in the world. “While we do things a little differently, the space isn’t just about appealing to curators,” he says as we wander West 27th, another delivery truck all but drowning out the conversation. “We’ve also built up relationships with collectors who have, in turn, built up relationships with the artists’ work. It’s a business, so it’s really about doing that as well and it’s a real validation when it happens.
“The collectors we work with aren’t speculators on Wall Street – they’re really compulsive in some ways and art collecting seems to be their passion,” he pauses. “Ultimately, it’s about your ideas and the artists you connect with and if people are interested in that, we’ll just keep on doing it.”
In the month following our interview, Foxy Production suffered extensive damage and losses as a result of Hurricane Sandy, as did much of Chelsea’s art precinct. We send our best wishes.